Research perspectives on Base of the Pyramid

Research Workshop at SPIRE

What is the role of privat sector in international development? What has it been over time, and how is it changing with BoP activities?

What are the implications of using terms as customers, consumers, users, bop’s, people, citizens, and more, when talking about people in developing countries, now the target of attention from the concept of Base of the Pyramid?

What would a Scandinavian model of BoP look like?

Can and should we develop some kind of quality standards or ethical guidelines for companies engaging in BoP activities?

Theese were some of the questions on the table at a research workshop at the SPIRE research centre of Participatory Innovation at University of Southern Denmark, which I organized recently. The call of the workshop was:

People Centred Innovation in Developing Countries
– exploring the intersections of participatory innovation
and participatory development

Since Base of the Pyramid is still a new field both of research and practice in Denmark – as in most places – the aim of the workshop was to start weaving together the work being done in the field and to unfold questions, challenges, and perspectives for further research. So rather than a search for answers, this was a search for more questions to ask.

The researchers presenting were me (Louise Koch), giving an introduction to the field of Base of the Pyramid and to the research project I am conducting on how to apply a people centred innovation approach to work with BoP.

Then followed Jacob Ravn, PhD student from Aalborg University and director of the cross-sector project access2innovation presented his project and point of departure. The aim of his project is to create access to innovations and technologies to solve problems and create social and economical development in less developed countries. It is based on the premise that a lot of the solutions and technologies needed are actually available in the industrialized world, but there is a lack of connection and access to this knowledge from the developing countries. Furthermore the project looks at how to enable collaboration between different sectors, mainly NGOs, universities and privat sector. This in itself holds many interesting perspectives, when for-profit mindsets meet non-profit mindsets in a joint collaboration and innovation process.

And finally, Max Rolfstam, post doc at SPIRE, gave us interesting perspectives on the role of public procurement for development.

From my project, the questions are many, and arising in different areas and scopes. To give you the brief overview, here is my slide:

Research questions, Louise Koch

The first level aims at the very methodological level of design and innovation processes between participants from very different backgrounds. This is not a new challenge in innovation, but the degree of difference and the level of not-knowing all sides might be larger.

BoP is a demographic category, but covers 4 billion people living in very diverse socio-cultural contexts and with very diverse lifeworlds. Therefore, we can develop guidelines and best practice, but it must always take into consideration the differences. The question is, what differences make a difference?

What business and the discourse about BoP is often missing, is the fact that there is no – or not always – a pre-existing market at the base of the pyramid. This means that creating a market is about creating a socio-cultural system of social relations and value perceptions. Bring in the anthropologists!

The role and relations of business and development are crucial to consider in a BoP context. I see a tendency from the business side and from the existing books on BoP to build almost an opposition between business and the development sector. This is not a sustainable road to go, since sustainable solutions must build on the collaboration between business and public sector, and since the development sector has 50 years of experience of do’s and dont’s when it comes to social development. If the new business practitioners don’t take all this knowledge and experience into account, they will probably repeat most of the same mistakes once more. The further challenge is how to develop a business that is actually sustainable in terms of both social, environmental and economical terms.

Finally, a very important aspect is the ethical side of it. I see many opportunities in adding the piece of privat sector and business innovation to the work of social development. However, as experience has shown – from both business and development sector –  even the best intentions can have devastating consequences.


One response to “Research perspectives on Base of the Pyramid

  1. Justin DeKoszmovszky

    Your question of language (“What are the implications of using terms as customers, consumers, users, bop’s, people, citizens, and more, when talking about people in developing countries”) is a great one.

    Working for SC Johnson in Kenya developing “Community Cleaning Services”, a BoP business in Nairobi’s “informal settlements”, I have realized that the language used is crucial for ‘framing’ the interaction (eg: NGO lingo is pervasive, not using it sends a message that our work is not a “project” but a “business”). Furthermore, we’ve learned that the politically correct lingo of development or ‘BoP’ is rarely the language our partners, entrepreneurs and teams use (eg: they call their areas “slums” not “informal settlements”).

    As your question intimates, language adds meaning and identity so understanding the implications and adjusting it to one’s objective and local situation is imperative.

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